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by Ann Feldman (Kreitstein), Los Angeles
Part of my life was spent in Brzozhov, Poland, where I was born, grew up and graduated from the seven grades of the girls' school.
Attendance in grade school was compulsory and quite a trial for the Jewish children. We were forced to sit in the back benches and forbidden to converse in our own language – Yiddish. Something that once happened to me there demonstrates how the Polish teachers treated us:
Two Polish girls in my class once quarreled and disturbed the lesson. Their behavior angered the teacher and she ordered me to sit between the two. Placing a Jewish girl between the two fools was meant to be a heavy punishment for them. Naturally they turned their backs to me in an insulting manner and drew away as far as possible, as if I was the bearer of some contagious disease. I begged the teacher to let me return to my place and her answer was as follows: Your place is in Palestine and there you will be able to choose any place you like to sit in. Here you must obey my orders!
From early childhood I was accustomed to hear the invective Jew, go to Palestine!, even before I went to school, but such rudeness on the part of a teacher, a woman of learning and educator of a class, directed at innocent children, shocked me deeply. I was hurt to the very core of my being.
I loved reading Pan Tadeus, the famous masterpiece of Adam Mickievitz, the great Polish poet and humanist. The fine figure of the Jew, Yankel, described by Mickiewitz as a music lover, an honest man and a Polish patriot, excited my imagination. The teacher made it clear that there was nothing surprising in the Polish poet's liking of this Jew, for in his time the Jews behaved properly, wore correct clothing (a kapota and a yarmulke), and did not intrude where they were not wanted.
A truly penetrating, broad-minded interpretation by a Polish teacher of a literary work!
I cannot but think that the Nazis would not have succeeded so well in their work of annihilation if it were not for the active assistance extended them by our Polish neighbours who were overjoyed at this opportunity given to them to get rid of the Jews.
by Haya Shmilowitz (Zelig)
While still. A young girl in 1920 I made up my mind to leave Poland. It was a traumatic experience of a pogrom led by Polish hooligans from the neighbouring Stara-Viesch and Borkovka, lusting for blood and loot, which caused me to make this decision.
It was a miracle that saved us. Skrebeck and his wife, decent people, took us into their home and hid us for several days, during which we subsisted on bread and water.
I well remember the years I spent at the Girls' Public School. During the Religion lessons, given to the Christians by the priest, the Jewish girls had to wait outside in the corridor. It seems that this priest had a sinister idea of converting me, otherwise why would he demand that I, out of all the Jewish pupils there, remain in class during his lesson. This also contributed to my decision to leave Poland at the earliest possible opportunity. It was no easy task to convince my parents that I had to leave home at an early age and go to Eretz Yisrael where we had no relatives at all.
Luckily for me the Saddigura Rabbi who lived in Przemysl gave me his blessing for the journey, a fact which greatly influenced my parents in permitting me to go.
My preparations to go to Eretz Yisrael were made in secret, in order to avoid all kinds of advisers from influencing my parents and making them regret their decision.
I left, armed with a certificate belonging to Feivel Rott of blessed memory, a fellow villager who took me along as his wife after a fictitious wedding ceremony.
My leave taking from Bielavsky, the Mayor of Brzozhov who knew my family well, is noteworthy. When I came to his office to fill in the forms in order to get a passport he inquired in a friendly fashion: Where is it you're going? To Palestine? Go with my blessing! There will be one Jewess less in Brzozhov…
After so many years his words still ring in my ears, as if I had just heard them.
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by Avraham Levite
I never managed to survey the shtetl as a whole, not from a bird's-eye view and certainly not from the heights of a plane. The highest vantage point I ever attained was from our attic, perched on the higher rungs of a wooden ladder. Through the cracked roof and the wooden beams, rotted from the winter snows and the summer rains, one could see just one small lane, no more.
In my imagination I see the shtetl as a kind of giant, two-headed tortoise: its fat belly is the rink, the business center and Jewish quarter; its feet – the lanes, sprawled sideways; its first neck – the path leading to the scrap-iron store in what was once Yantsche Druckernick the printer's house. Built on a slope the house, only the upper part of which was visible, seemed to be sinking and about to fall down. It was built just before the left turn in the direction of the Starosta and the Post Office. The second head, or rather, the neck, was the Beis-medresh barg, the way leading to the Beis-medresh. On the left of the slope, near the high stone wall, supporting the edge of Avraham Poritz's lot, the way curves down in a semicircle leading to the timber storage house of Melech Herzlich as well as to the Widatsh, Panski Krzhakis and the Christian cemetery.
The sharp turn and the heavy incline on this side of the road are a major traffic hazard. Luckily for the village, motor cars were a rarity. Farmers' carts and bicycle riders going downhill before the turn would often, just before turning left, crash into the wall of the Beis-medresh. Here, the windows being built very low, they would find themselves paying the Rabbi a flying visit by way of the crashed window panes, to the extreme astonishment of both host and guest alike.
The Beis-medresh itself was an enormous wooden building; its front wing was divided into apartments and included a grocery. The synagogue was in the back wing and the participants in prayers were many, particularly on weekdays. From dawn almost to midday there were minyans praying there. No political meetings or mass gatherings were held there but after mincha-ma'ariv there would appear ba'aleidarsher, that is, preachers and wandering speakers, professional purveyors of moral reproofs and public castigation. Their sermons would include legends of chazal (our wise men of blessed memory), proverbs, tales about righteous men, and homilies based on verses from the Bible. All this was delivered in the proper sing-song intonation, with a timely mention of the day of death, hell and the like – subjects arousing the emotions. Simple people greatly enjoyed all this, feeling a kind of pleasurable pain like that felt when downing a glass of alcohol or during the beating administered by twigs on the shwitz-bank in the public baths, G-d forgive us for the comparison.
At the end of the sermon – Uva lesion go'el venomar amern (And a savior will come to Zion, amen), two respected Baaley-batim would appear by the door; the treasurer, cap in hand for the collection, and the collector who would stop the people on the way out and get some pennies for the needy preacher. The size of the contribution depended on the quality of the sermon and the impression made on the audience by the preacher. The misers would try to evade payment by choosing a seat in some distant corner of the Beis-medresh, pretending an innocent absorption in some book or trying to lose themselves among a group of boys intent on their daily lessons. They tried to wait until the crowd dispersed and the collectors at the door completed their task. These dodgers were taken care of by a group of boys, organized for the purpose, who would approach them, cap in hand, demanding their contribution. Not that they ever got a penny from hem – whoever did get anything from the clenched first of a miser? But humiliating them openly in front of the congregation was a fit punishment.
From time to time some wandering booksellers
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would spread out their wares on the tables after prayers. Their stock comprised siddurim and machzorim (prayer books) – their bindings embellished with gold lettering, Hassidic literature, rimal books of rabbinical sermons and exegesis, mayseh bichlach (short romances) by Yona Krapple, fabrteist und verbesert (shortened and improved; versions of longer novels, troym bichlach to solve your dreams with the aid of horoscopes, brievshteler (model letters) etc.
The street continued in a straight line in the direction of the Mikveh (the ritual baths). On its right rose the mountain, topped by the rink which was called oiffen barg (on the mountain). The oiffen barg began after Mendel Scherts's yard, opposite the Beis medresh. A few small, misshapen wooden huts were scattered here on the face of the mountain, like so much discarded junk on an abandoned lot. Their appearance was pitiful even according to the standards of the shtetl at the time, perched insecurely on t heir foundations, like some objects discarded for a moment. It later transpired that the Jews' brick houses, for all their stability, did not last much longer than those ruins.
The best known house in this lane was that of Hanna Reisele, and that in spite of the fact that the house itself no longer exited and Hanna Reisele had left the shtetl long since. Nevertheless anyone living in the place was referred to as living near Hanna Reisele's house and people continued to pass by it. This ghost-house became notorious after a fire had broken out in it one night, shocking the whole village: se'brennt bei Hanna Reiselen!
Every few years fires would break out in the small, crowded villages, razing the old wooden housed to the ground, and leaving their occupants practically naked and destitute, their meager property having gone up in flames. When a fire broke out, the inhabitants, their hands full of little children, of whom there were many, had no time to think of their possessions in their panic to save their offspring from the flames. Only if you were lucky enough to be far from the source of the fire could you sometimes salvage some bedding and clothing.
Before the First World War a great fire broke out in our shtetl too, destroying the houses which were huddled next to each other. The inhabitants fled in fear relinquishing everything they had to the flames. In time new houses were put up on the empty lots, part of which were of stone, and even those built of wood were reasonably spaced apart from each other, changing the whole shtetl's appearance.
In general, fires left their mark on the history of the shtetl, and the oldsters would tell some hair-raising stories about them. In the manner of catastrophes of nature and primordial cataclysms, the memory of these events would remain inscribed in the inhabitants' subconscious in the form of legends and folktales handed down from generation to generation.
The fires also constituted pivotal turning points in the history of the villages, according to which the years were calculated and dates established. Thus: He was born two years before the fire etc. Hanna Reisele's first appears to have been special, a kind of private conflagration named after her alone, for it was put out relatively early, and no one was hurt beside the house, which went up in the flames. The old neighbouring houses that remained were almost the only ones retaining the old ambiance of the shtetl as it had then been.
One the other side of the oiffen barg, opposite Hanna Reisele's ghost house, was a row of houses beginning with the Tshortkover Clois, a medium-sized prayer house in an old wooden structure, including some apartments. This was followed by the Hevreh Liner Clois or, as it was officially called – The Society for Charity Lodging.
The Gallician shtetls boasted prayer houses called Yad Kharutzim or Schneider-Shule in which artisans and workmen congregated for prayer. The congregation gathered to pray in The Hevreh Liner Clois was of that kind, and it was the only prayer house to remain empty after the prayers, abandoned by its members, who hurried away on their business, unlike other synagogues where the house owners and yeshiveh youngsters remained after prayers, to delve into the gemarot or some other books. Here any goly-brodnik, that is a beardless, clean-shaven Jew, could go up to pray before the congregation or read the Torah unhindered.
Especially impressive here were the murals painted on the walls. The story was told in the Heder – (and what source could be more reliable?) was that at one time a highly gifted painter, some kind of Leonardo da Vinci who was also a prodigious drunkard, arrived at the shtetl and painted all these wondrous murals while imbibing constantly from a bottle of brandy. The paintings depicted the animals of the Pentateuch and the symbols of the tribes, painted in striking colors and bearing suitable quotations.
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In the center of the ceiling, around the circle from which hung the blitz-lamp, the big oil chandelier, the artist had painted a great Leviathan curved so that his tail was between his teeth. This motif was based on reality, for it is well known that the earth stands upon a giant Leviathan who holds his tail between his teeth. So long as it continues to lie thus quietly – the world goes on to exist. How greatly we feared that the time would come when the leviathan would tire of this posture, feel like scratching or straightening his back, let his tail go for a moment, and then, God forbid, the world would come to an end.
Who could have dreamt that our fears would be realized and the destruction of our world come so quickly…
The Gabbai of the Havreh Liner Clois was completely devoted to the synagogue. He was a simple, music loving man and made the Clois available to wandering hazanim (cantors) who would pray ma'ariv before the ark accompanied by singers and sometimes boys with sweet soprano voices who gave solos for the public's enjoyment. The shtiklach or musical pieces sung by the hazanim would later turn into hits in the congregation, long to be hummed in the prayer house.
All the prayer houses were maintained by their various congregations by means of the incomes derived from sworn pledges given while going up to read the Torah on the Sabbath and Holy Days, and from the auctions held on Simchat Torah for the honor to be Hatan Torah (Bridegroom of the Torah) and Hatan Bereshit (the first reader of Genesis on that Holy Day). There was also the sale of other important functions for the Sabbath throughout the whole year, offered at wholesale prices such as the opening of the Ark, taking out the torah, Maftirs for the Sabbath etc. The sale took place on the Sabbath of Bereshit and the money thus earned was used to buy wood during the approaching winter.
The stove, burning all day long, was a great attraction during the harsh winter. Peddlers standing for hours beside their carts in the freezing cold, small shop-keepers whose shops attracted very few customers, and beggars who could not afford kindling for their homes – all exploited every opportunity to go into the Clois or the Beis-Medresh and warm up a little. Although they did not do this out of a desire to serve the Torah, they often ended up by doing so, perhaps taking down some book from the shelf and studying it for a while or saying a chapter of Psalms which, as is well known, is good for anything that ails us: health, livelihood and every need or trouble. Nor were they in any way blamed if they sometimes drowsed a little in the pleasant warmth, the book open in front of them. That the husband spent his time in the Clois beside the warm stove while his wife was alone in the freezing store was somewhat mitigated by the fact that both husband and wife regarded the chanting of Psalms as the husband's contribution to their livelihood and their daily struggle for existence in different ways.
The warmth of the synagogues was a boon to many, who were easily identified by the white lime sticking to their backs, put there while they leant against the stove, and made especially prominent by the blackness of their clothing.
There were two main institutions for which the congregation held itself full responsible: the cemetery on the one hand and the public bath on the other.
The cemetery or the beis-olam, also called ‘s’hei-likeh ort (the new holy place, to distinguish it from the old cemetery, lay in the precinct of the forest, some kilometers walk from the shtetl). This old cemetery had not been used for decades and very few visitors came there to seek out a grave. The active cemetery, on the other hand, was closer to the shtetl and could be reached by the path behind the new park, near the zigelnieh – the brick factory. Despite its location outside the inhabited area of the shtetl and its distance from it, the cemetery was one of the places to be described here and all the people of the shtetl had some connection with it, each family with its own representatives. There were those who came to rest there at a ripe old age, the envy of all; some were brought in their youth or as children who had died suddenly, before their time and whose death had shocked the whole shtetl. This cemetery
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had prepared itself to take in many more generations of the departed; it awaited their arrival but the privilege went elsewhere…
The second institution for which the congregation was responsible was the public and the ritual bath (mikveh). The public bath, called bedel was built behind the Hevreh Liner Clois, reached by a flight of steps leading down to it. As we were still at Heder age we had no idea of the important function fulfilled by the mikveh in the framework of family purity, nor did we imagine that women, too, went to the mikveh. On the other hand we were well aware of its importance to the men, for the Hassidim went there assiduously several times a week to immerse themselves in the water. Due to the influence of the Kabbala, the Hassidic movement assigned a great importance to the ritual bath, turning the immersion into a veritable ritual. For reasons of economy the mikveh wasn't heated up every day, yet there were veteran Hassidim who bathed there in the winter, when the water was as cold as ice. L According to the law, meat that has not been made kosher and not immersed in water became over after three days, that is, its' time had expired and eating it was prohibited. The Hassidim in their hair-splitting preached that their own flesh, their body, should never be without the mikveh every three days for fear it would turn into over, God forbid. Actually, under the then prevailing conditions when the houses were without baths, showers or running water, and the people washed themselves by means or bowls of water, the bath house provided an urgent need in the preservation of cleanliness and hygiene, quite literally and without the need for homiletics.
The Council of the Congregation tended the old building of the public baths, enlarged it and introduced improvements and modern innovations. On the eve of the Sabbath and of Holy Days one could, for a mere pittance, enjoy the use of the two mikvehs – hot and cold --, a shower and a shwitz, i.e. a sauna. The baths were placed in a special room and had to be paid for separately.
At the back of the public baths building was the chickens slaughter house, between which and the stream, flowing at some distance beyond, was an empty, abandoned lot, overgrown with briars, nettles and weeds, all so heavily covered with feathers that from a distance it looked as though that was all that grew there. At the entrance to the dark slaughter room one saw a strange sight: the shochet (ritual slaughterer), familiar to all from the synagogue and the street as a highly respected Jew, moderate and gentle in his ways as befitted a learned scholar, second only to the Rabbi and always impeccable dressed. This dignified man was suddenly reveled here, his skull-cap stuck to his head with feathers, wearing a thick apron made of sacking saturated with blood and holding a knife between his teeth!
This bizarre combination of a Jew, and a respectable one at that, with a knife – a Jew bespattered with blood – was astonishing, to say the least.
It was customary, when giving the names of important cities in the world, to mention the rivers besides which they had grown. If we were to do the same with the shtetl we would call it Brezev am Bedel Wasser. The Bedel Wasser was not exactly a river. It was, rather, a narrow, meandering creek, very like a gutter of rain water. Because of its proximity to the Baths, affectionately called bedel in Yiddish, for some reason, this creek was named Bedel-wasser. For its greater part it wound through the Borkovka fields, serving the Goyim as a surrogate mikveh, save the mark! The Borkovka women also used it for their laundry washing.
The section close to the public baths was the bathing beach of the Jewish children. In the rare summer days permitted by the Shulchan Aruch for bathing, after the yemei sefira (days of counting) and before the Three Weeks and the Nine Days culminating in Tish'a Be'av, when bathing is forbidden – the children would dip in the bedel-wasser splashing to their hearts' content, naked as Adam and Eve had been before they learnt the meaning of shame. They tried to swim the length of the creek, always careful not to leave the limits of the Jews' territorial waters.
As to the depth of the bedel-wasser, the children put it this way: If you stand on your head in it, its water reaches right up to your ears. From all this it becomes clear that the bedel-wasser was not, God forbid, a public danger. Its waves never swept a swimmer away and no one had ever drowned in it. It did overflow in the rainy season, but then no one swam in it because of the cold. Neither did this flood cause any serious damage. At the most the rising waters swept some of the feathers on the bank near the slaughterhouse over the fields of Burkovka.
The bedel-wasser played other roles as well: the willows growing on its banks supplied the whole shtetl with ritual objects: Hosha'anot for Ho-
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shana Rabba, willows for lulavim, greenery for Shavuot (Pentecost), and sticks for flags and fire-sparklers on Simchat Torah. Those who lived nearby used the branches of its trees to thatch their succot (tabernacles); its thick branches served as casts for the dreidlach or leaden tops of Hannukah; new dishes were dipped in its waters before being used: on Rosh Hashana all the Jews of the shtetl, ,men, women and children went there for tashlich (the casting away of sins into the waters), and the little stream absorbed all their sins, which were not many, as it transpired, for it is a fact that the bedel-wasser did not overflow its banks; its waters were not contaminated and remained just as pure as they had been before.
As the bedel-wasser marked the limits of the Jewish lands, beyond which began the fields of the Goi'm's Borkovka, in order to avoid returning by the same way we had come let us go back to the Rink through the Saddigura Clois Road, so as to remain within the Jewish Precincts.
Passing by the new apartment house, built of bricks, and some old wooden shacks, roofed with shingles, followed by Bobker's house roofed with tin, as befitted a blacksmith, one arrived at a small empty lot, a kind of square with an open well which supplied all the nearby inhabitants with their water. The walls of the well were reinforced by round concrete drainage pipes, the top one of which jutted out above ground in the form of a round trough with a slanted roof over it, leaning on two vertical logs stuck deeply into the ground. A wooden pole, rounded like a window pane, was inserted by means of two hinges into the two logs over the well, with a long iron chain wound around it and a pail at the end for drawing water. This iron chain, always wet, was covered with rust, and the older children of the Heder busied themselves a lot with it. Having gotten their hands covered with rust they would stand wiping them in front of their younger companions, boasting of their oisgear-bete hent – hands calloused by manual labor, guaranteed to arouse respect and bestow authority.
The pail that hung from a large hook was always leaky and the rusty drops froze in winter, forming brownish plaits of ice.
The deep well was shrouded in darkness within and stories were rife about the indefinable something haunting its bottom, tempting those who looked down inside and drawing them into the depths. Sometimes, when the fear was overcome by curiosity and one bent to peer inside, there was really discernible a shadowy figure in the black mirror of water, wavering and raising its hands as if preparing to pull you down. One drew back immediately, before it was too late. What luck that the monster was a water-creature and never emerged from the well.
Across from the well was the Sadigurer Clois, a large building with decorated walls and a wooden mezuzah, carved in the form of a fish by the artist Moshe Yankel, he of the golden hands, on its lintel. Because of its size and the liberal tradition of its congregation, the Sadigurer Clois also served as a place for political meetings in later years, and local speakers or guests invited by the parties spoke there before the elections. Here, too, mass meetings were held on special occasions and Zionist leaders were eulogized after their death.
It was there that the Clois-Bahurim studied the Gemarra and Exegesis all day long. The more persevering among them, the matmidim, were promised a glorious future – they would become rabbis. The mediocre ones were satisfied with knowing a page of Gemarra for domestic use and there was also those whose minds were not on the Gemarra at all but hung around wasting their time on worthless things until they left their parents' jurisdiction and went to the Fareinen, learnt a trade, or left the shtetl in their search for tachless. The more tolerant members of the congregation treated them with understanding and a measure of respect, well aware of the importance of their maintaining some sort of ties with the Clois, and not getting into evil ways. The more radical members, as was their wont, insulted them, claiming that by their very presence they were corrupting the better youths. This was another aspect of the eternal argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, the two schools of thought, and it goes on to this very day.
Clinging to the wall of the Sadigurer Clois there stood the old Rabbi's wooden house, containing the Rabbi's living quarters and the bezn-shtub – the Court Room which served the Rabbi both as a study and as a guest room. Here the Balei-batim gathered to listen to words of wisdom or to enjoy a pleasant conversation about mundane affairs of the day and a cup of tea. The two houses thus joined together maintained close ties, reflecting their authority and influence upon each other.
During the morning the land hummed with activity, the Jews emerging in Tallis and Tefillin from
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the Clois. Their walk was leisurely, some of them conversing in pairs. Others were along, deep in thought, curling their side-curls into which they wove the sense of holiness still clinging to their fingertips which had touched the mezuzah on leaving the synagogue. Children of all ages hurried to their various Heders in the vicinity, raising a hullabaloo as children will.
The Tantz Meister, dancing teacher to those the youngsters who no longer accepted the old ways and sought the new, was a rare bird in the area. As Tantz Meisters were unknown in the Heder, and the Hassidim dancing on Simchat Torah in the Clois were not numbered among his pupils – we all thought that he had gotten his name because of his peculiar, dance-like walk. Elegantly clothed and boasting a bow tie, a walking stick in his hand, wearing white gloves and black and white lacquered shoes he seemed, on the background of the miserable street, like one of the illustrations in the tattered magazines one saw at Yossef Asher's, the tailor of fashion. No doubt a stranger arriving there by chance who caught a glimpse of the Tantz Meister would have thought he was an American come to seek out his poor relations.
On the lot before the Clois there is an old wooden house, half buried in the ground and with small, narrow windows. As people were always passing there on their way to the Clois, the architect who planned the house solved this problem by putting the windows almost on ground level, so that the only way the passers-by could peep inside was by lying down on the ground. A shoemaker had once lived there, one Michel Mondrosh (a real wise guy), so called because of his tricks and clowning. After he left the shtetl to go abroad, nothing was remembered either of him or his notorious tricks, mores the pity.
Another tumble-down hut is worth mentioning, the one at the end of the street which led to the Rink – the Beigel-bakerin's house. It was in connection with this structure that we first heard the term boyfelik i.e., dangerous to live in. This word was always accompanied by a sigh, as if one were speaking of a terminal patient. The term boyfelik brought a similar expression to mind – unkreitik, nebbich -- describing an undernourished child.
But let's return to the Rink, a ring in German as in English. This was the name given to the central round piazza found in every village and forming the heart of all the streets and paths stemming from it.
If you drew two imaginary diagonal lines from one end of the rink to the other, one line would take us from the flat rectangular cases of glass for window panes at Wielopolsky the glazier's, way up to the low, narrow, sawdust filled cases used to package eggs for export near Penner's storehouse.
The other line began at Koppel Zwik's house, a low structure leaning on Seiler's high stone building from which it derived its confidence. With an air of belligerence it defied its critics, as if crying: Look at who is standing behind me! The line ended at the crooked, misshapen stone stairs near Eisick Filler's which led to Randshines and further. These stairs were covered in ice during the winter, a hazard to old and young alike.
The Rink comprised two parts: to the east lay the smaller part, shaped like a right-angled triangle, while the western and main part was in the form of a rectangle. The village high road, crossing through the Rink, separated the two. In the center of the Rink on its rectangular side stood the Rathois – the local council, a large municipal building housing rented shops and a few offices. There were also some privileged tenants living there, including some Jews. A talk square tower rose from the roof of the Rathois with a long cable running from its top down into an iron pipe stuck into the ground – a lightning rod to protect the area from the frequent thunder storms in the area, storms which shook the windows and filled the children's hearts with dread. This wondrous contraption about which many tales were told in the Heder was called a blitz-ableiter and a similar cable was to be found in the non-Jewish quarter on the roof of the Sokol.
The Jews, obviously, did not put all their trust in a piece of iron wiring but possessed additional means of protection from thunder and lightning – the prayers of the Creator of Genesis and He whose strength and power fill the world. These prayers, intoned with deep intent, were also said by the children.
Three sides of the Rathois tower boasted great clocks whose Roman numbers muddled the children, confusing their calculations of the time and making them late for Heder, for which they were heavily punished.
The showy part of the Rathois, its front, was to the south, facing Lerner's pubic house, with a large beautiful balcony belonging to one of the apartments. This balcony came into its own on national Polish
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holidays such as Independence Day on November 11 or Constitution day on May 3, when it because the center of the celebrations. It was then decorated with the national flags, and an enormous carpet bearing the national emblem – a white eagle on a red background – was hung down from it. The balcony served as a stage for high Government officials holding forth before the people massed in the Rink with their high-flown rhetoric and patriotic speeches. As both these holidays occurred in the winter, one at its beginning and one at its end, the people were muffled up against the cold in warm coats and hats. The event culminated with the singing of the national anthem Poland is still… , with everybody taking off their caps except for a few curious boys from the beis-medresh who stood apart and with the beginning of the anthem began running in the direction of the near-by houses so as not to take off their caps and remain bare headed. This, naturally, irritated the Poles standing nearby, who had never harbored a great love for Israel under any circumstances and the boys were badly beaten.
The Rink was also the gathering place for those participating in the Odpust, a Christian holy day especially connected with Stara-Wiesz (old village) quite close to the shtetl. Many pilgrims from the surrounding villages passed through the shtetl, giving the event the carnival air of a small fair. The youngsters among them would gather in groups around the Rink, playing their mouth-organs, drinking soft drinks, and eating cakes tasting of leftover chametz from before Pesach.
Itinerant peddlers, called by the Poles Tanieh Zhid (a Jew selling bargains) put up their booths on the Rink, in which they offered their bargains of cheap haberdashery, balloons, whistles and sweets of doubtful make. Rolling up a square of newspaper into a cone, a shtramotz, they would pour in some candy to the accompaniment of endless rhymes spiced with words of wisdom and homilies, to the great admiration of the people hanging around. Their tongues were more generous than their hands; there was, in fact, no coordination between them. For every ten verbal sweets the adroit salesman would perhaps put in one real piece of candy, so that the closed shtramotz actually contained many worthless rhymes and very few sweets…
Here, too, was the Great Well, the like of which there were only two in the whole village, one near the Gemeine and one beside the Courthouse. The well was completely sealed with a pump beside it, an iron handle covered with wood stuck into a well to turn it. After the wheel had been turned a few times and gained momentum you could hang onto the handle and turn with it until it slowed down and stopped. This game would go on until the water-drawers, women carrying pails and bowls came along and sent the kids away to the Heder.
All the parts of the well were tied down by means of large screws into the concrete base. There was a pump which to us looked like a small skinny imp endlessly flailing his arms up and down. After a few turns of the wheel the pump began to work and the water would rise out of the depths through a long vertical perforated pipe. A thin handle jutted out of this pipe, upon which the pails for collecting the water would be hung. In winter this pipe would be heavily wrapped in straw to prevent its freezing up.
Drawing the water was the work of a number of gentile women who divided the houses of the village
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among themselves, including all those of the Jews. There was a Jew once, a drawer of water, but we never learnt his name as he was dumb and couldn't tell us nor could he write. We called him der stummer (the dumb one) and after he died the work was all in the hands of the goyes. There were large wooden barrels inside the houses, in the corridor near the entrance door, into which the water would be poured. Pails were then filled with this water by means of a kwart, a special pot also used for the washing of hands. The pail of water would stand inside the house in the corner near the stove, a source of supply for cooking, drinking and washing. In winter it would freeze up in the barrel, turning into a block of ice which had to be broken in order to reach the water at the bottom.
The square stretching from the Rathois to the shops was paved with small square stones, slightly sharp at the top. A special rumbling sound was made by the carts going across them with their wooden, iron bound wheels. The hooves of the horses struck the pointed stones and in the winter, when everything was covered with ice, a horse would often slip upon them, spreading showers of sparks all around to the delight of the children in the Heder.
Lerner's pub was to be found in this square. In the summer small tables and chairs would be placed outside, in the manner of a café, and Goyim from the town or the nearby villages would sit there, enjoying their Okochimske beer, served in halbos, thick glass mugs with a handle, holding a pint. An ancient gramophone with an enormous tube would blare out some music, deafening the whole village from end to end. Drinking and talking, they would sometimes burst out laughing wildly in a way never heard among Jews who, even when they laugh, do so in a restrained, half-hearted manner. Even on Simchat Torah and Purim, when everyone is enjoined to be merry, there is hardly any laughter to be heard. It is chocked back, swallowed up in the thick beard.
Having emptied their halbos the drinkers would wipe the white foam of beer from their moustache, pulled at both ends to left and right and go on to order another round.
The real lushes, those who came to do some serious drinking, not to talk, sat inside so as to be as close as possible to the source of their drinks and lose no time in waiting to be served. The barman, like a fire-man, did his best to quench their eternal thirst which could never be satisfied.
Next to Lerner's was Avremeleh Kornfeld's pub. Avremeleh was a respectable widower of many years standing, handsome, carefully dressed and boasting a gold chain across his protruding belly. He spoke slowly in a slightly hoarse voice, moving along sedately as if to show that he had no reason for hurry and nothing would be done without him. Reb Avremeleh and a pub seemed a contradiction in terms but, actually the two resembled each other: the pub was quiet and uneventful. Compared to Lerner's noisy and crowded establishment this one resembled a long-extinguished volcano. Actually it was the kind of café where people relaxed while sipping a cup of tea and exchanging reminiscences.
In the row of shops some belonged to Goyim, like the delicatessen, for example, which had once been a cooperative called Consom. There were three butchers selling pork before it, and these had cellars beneath them with barred windows opening onto the pavement.
It was there that the pork was cooked, fried and cured and the place smelt of unclean, putrefied flesh. The Heder children passing by would press their nostrils together to shut out the sickening stench.
Then there came a building which served as a kind of passage through the empty lot (where a house had once stood of a number of apartments) to the Bianner Cloise street which led to the Oliarniya, a Goyish slum whose scoundrels were famous for their stone throwing and their pestering of the Jewish children living at the entrance of this neighborhood.
The last shop in the row was Masha's Delicatessen, a corner store with windows full of tasty, titillating things. Actually the ambitions of the Heder children were not too extravagant and were easily satisfied by square of chocolate filled with coffee cream a Kavovkeh followed by some toffee or with the fruit of Hamishousser, served once a year. Masha's shop stood in the middle of Kalman Wolf's chain of shops which extended in two directions.
On the west side of the Ring, opposite the back of the Rathois, there were only two shops: Fass's Haberdashery at one end on Wielopolsky's the glazier's workshop and store at the other, the latter being a part of old Skrebek's the organist's property. This Skarbek, the Goyim's cantor, instead of singing before the lectern, did so at the Goyim's funerals. He spoke Yiddish well and, as the funerals proved a good source [Page 25 English]
of income, would often speak of his Jewish neighbours of his innermost wishes:
One today (a funeral).The boys of the Heder, having found a dead cat, would place it, with the help of a stick, upon a board, and stage a royal funeral for it, complete with the ceremonious singing in imitation of Skarbek's voice and the use of his melodies sans his permission. This is what the Yiddish requiem said:
And the next day double…
Gobbling too much peas and lentils.Behind Skarbek's house, outside the rink but close to it, between the Filler brothers houses there was an empty lot in which the farm women sold their wares on market days. This was the Platz. It lay between the red brick house belonging to Gedalya Filler, the baker, and the stone house opposite it belonging to his brother Mendel who owned a soda-water factory, (a soda-wasser fabric it was called in the shtetl). How well the name Filler suited him! Didn't he actually fill bottles with the soda-water he produced? The noise of the wheels and the Whirr of the motor could be heard from afar, accompanied by the rattle of empty bottles and the tinkle of porcelain corks fitted to them. Then, as a kind of chorus, you could hear the sound of the full bottle being torn away from the feeding tube: zzzzz…
Brought you to this plight.
Cupping could no longer help you.
And so you, nebbich, died.
(Words: Heder Boys; Music: Skarbek).
It was here, in this factory, that we first saw a mashin at work. As its name, a soda-wasser mashin implied, it produced siphons of soda and small bottles of soft drinks in different colors called krachlin (because of the crack they produced when opened). This was our first actual experience of a factory and here we got our basic concepts of industry in general.
Westward from the Platz some steps led downwards to levkes (benches in Polish) – a small area with some Jewish houses. If you went through the lavkes it was a short-cut to Rengines, to the big Stara Viyesh, the main milk supplier to the Jewish homes.
It was a strange name , levkes, for there were no benches in the place and even though it was a typical Polish name the Goyim never used it, only the Jews.
Most of the village shops were on the eastern side of the rink, near the triangle and opposite the main road. Starting with Penner's house in the north they continued the whole length of the rink, going on to the south, outside the Rink. The empty spaces in front of the shops served as parking lots for the farmers' cart whose owners came from the surrounding villages to do their shopping.
The houses were joined to each other in a row, their fronts consisting of gloomy, barely lighted shops.
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Only one of them, the tobacconist's Traffic, stood out colorfully. Tobacco, like vodka, was a government monopoly and only people with special rights, such as war-invalids, were licensed to sell it. The lintel of the shop was painted in diagonal stripes of red and white – the national colors, showing that this was a special shop selling a state commodity. The pubs, on the other hand, though they too sold a government commodity like vodka, were not decorated with the national colors (perhaps as a mark of respect). Even though your father didn't smoke, you were bound to go into Traffic for one reason or another, running errands for the adults who had the unquestionable right to use the children's services. The purchase would not be on a grand scale – a single cigarette such as a cheap Dramka, Sport or Egypskaya. Sometimes two cigarettes would be bought, a cheap one and a more expensive one. The tobacco would then be mixed and rolled in bibulki paper. Compared to its impressive façade, the inside of the shop seemed poor and miserable – a narrow counter and some half empty shelves…
The commercial life, the struggle to make a living, went on in the front of the houses, near the shops. At the back the apartments and the yards, also joined together, formed a kind of large courtyard.
From time to time one of the landlords tried to put up a fence marking the boundaries of his year but he soon learned that it wouldn't work and gave up the attempt. The children broke down the stakes as soon as they were put up and in a few days there was nothing left of the fence but some wooden stakes lying around all over the yard, to be quickly picked up by passers-by for kindling.
In the front, near the shops, men in black ubertsiers and velvet hats (kapeliush) during the summer and fur or its imitation in the winter, walked around, all buttoned up and more or less correctly dressed. Their business was bargaining or the search for a loan to pay off a note that was due.
The women wore short embroidered sheep coats in winter, covered with shawls and a wig (sheitel) on their heads. They were always in a hurry, always busy.
In the back yard, on the contrary, along the whole length of the row of houses, the men walked sedately, at their ease, looking the place over as if it belonged to them, not missing a thing. They wore the fringed cotton undershirt (tallis-kuton) which, though it had been white on the Sabbath, got greyer every day waiting patiently for Friday, when it would be changed at the public baths.
The women at the back wore a kerchief on their heads and faded dresses or dressing-gowns with slippers. There was a constant going in and out of each other's homes borrowing an egg, a cup of flour, an onion or a piece of garlic for the dish on the stove, meanwhile exchanging the latest gossip – may it not be considered a sin.
Even the squabbles in the backyard were homely by nature. Outside, in the front, the arguments turned on business, drawing away a customer etc. At the back the bone of contention might be a hen walking into a house the door of which had been left open by mistake, and causing some damage; a child had broken a windowpane with a stone; a passer-by had been soaked by dirty water etc.
Below the higher area of the courtyard which stretched behind the whole row of houses on the east, there was a lower level called Intern barg (under the hill). This was a narrow strip, some tens of metres wide, covered by some balding grass patches which passed behind the Sadigurer Clois in the north beside all the Jews' houses till that of Marin. Only one single plot belonged to a Goy there and it was stuck like a wedge in the Jewish area, dividing the Intern barg from the other Jewish plots which lay beyond it.
The Intern barg was the playground of the shtetl children of all ages, from the Heder children of the Borislaver, playing behind the Heder, to the older ones going to school and to other Heders all over the shtetl. They ruled the main area, playing Kichki-palezdri and hide-and-seek. There was an old oak tree in its centre, called a feike-boym (a pipe tree) by the children because of its acorns (chaser-nis) that were scattered beneath it and looked like a smoker's pipe. The tree was wide-trunked, its branches large and spreading out in all directions, made bare by the children who were always climbing them.
The feike-boym took part in all the games played by the Heder children. It was there they stood with closed eyes counting to a hundred and its roundness permitted a slight peeking to the sides at those hiding themselves. Then, when the latter emerged from their hiding places, it was the trunk that was beaten thrice to show they had been seen: Eins, zwei, drei!
The descent into the Intern barg was so steep that it was practically out of bounds for the grown-
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ups. When some irate father nevertheless took the trouble to go down in search for his son, this could be taken as a sign of the latter's heavy crime. The culprit, warned in time by his friends' cry: Your father's coming! and being well aware of what was in store for him, would run away like a rabbit, leaving his pursuer confused and at a loss, his stick useless in his hand like a broken branch, with the young rascals looking at him with open scorn, enjoying his predicament.
The southern part of the Inter barg was the widest and served as a private park for the local youths. There were some trees there in whose shade the girls of the adjacent houses like to sit. Their housework over and the lunch dishes washed, the girls sat back in a deck-chair or lay down upon a blanket, glancing into a book. Sometimes they lay down in dressing-gowns, sun bathing while fully clothed with their eyes shut. Sometimes they were joined by a boy and there would be some gentle flirting, fitting for this open area.
The lines of houses continued past the Rink and further to the south, to the old wooden houses and darkened shops. The house-fronts and the shop entrances were built behind porches with wooden roofs called puchines which provided shelter on days of rain and snow. These roofs deprived the shops of sunlight, giving them a gloomy appearance. Like paupers these miserable wooden buildings seemed to be modestly trying to hide behind their rich brothers, the three stone houses with their distended bellies. There was a stone house at each end of the puchines and one in the center. The first one, which was already outside the bounds of the Rink was Leizer's, and contained Diller's Haberdashery and Toy shop. Standing on the raised bricks which jutted out under his show window and clung to pane to look longingly at the toys inside. This was not junk, parts of tools and discarded objects – these were real, actual toys, smooth, professionally made for the fortunate children who would actually play with them. The goods were arranged in open cartons upon the glass shelves by Ha'im Leib's son, Meir who, with his stunted growth, slanted eyes and stubby nose looked like a Japanese. There the children stood with just the glass and the empty pockets of their parents separating them from these wondrous objects, dreaming and planning what they would do if by some miracle these toys would fall into their hands…
The second stone-built house (the kaminitze), following some houses with puchines, was Kintzler's with Ha'im Katz's large textile shop on its top floor. The third and last kaminitze at the end of the puchiones row was a Christian's and there Marin, one of the village's oldest and most respected inhabitants, had his shop of writing materials and school books. Writing materials could be bought in the Jewish shops for a few pennies less than he charged and when it came to school books, though it was true that Marin was their sole distributor, books, like clothes, were passed on from the older children to the younger and were also bought second-hand.
The Apotheka, pharmacy, was next to Marin's, and it deserves some mention. At first glance it looked like an ordinary shop. You went in, asked for what you were sent to fetch, waited till you got it, paid and left. But only he, who has never been inside the Apteik, could really think that this was all. First of all there was that wonderfully impressive signboard, a giant one made of glass, its black background highlighting the gold of its lettering. The letters themselves were spread out, as if keeping their distance from each other. The child absorbed them all in his glance, combining them into the one appropriate word for such a magnificent sign: A-PO-THE-KA. One could never pass such a sign and ignore it! The entrance door, too, was made of polished glass and the sound of the bell when it was opened was truly fabulous. Furthermore, the Upteike was the only place where a boy with side-curls would take off his cap on entering and stay thus with his head uncovered all the time. The place smelt of drugs and cleanliness. The staff wore white gowns like kittels, save the mark, worn on the Day of Atonement. The shelves were loaded with special jars and bottles of medicines and drugs, each one with its framed label giving the name of the contents in block letters. The gilded scales, too, were of a special kind the like of which could not be seen in any other shop. All these wonders were so distracting that when your turn came to be served and you were asked what you wanted you became confused and forgot how to say Please give me… in Polish, even though you had rehearsed it all the way and passed the test at home before leaving. There was a story going round about such an unfortunate customer who came to the pharmacy once and became so confused with the tinkling of the bell and the sharp smell of spices and drugs that he completely forgot the words he had been taught to
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say and addressed the pharmacist thus: Good morning, Mr. Yakhi ointment!
Having stuttered your way somehow out of the embarrassing confusion and waiting to have your order measured and weighed, there was something you had to find out, a matter that had been bothering you for some time. Word had it in the Heder that the Upteiker, that is, the apothecary, was a convert, a fact proven by the cross branded on the nape of his neck. This could only be confirmed if he turned is back on you, something you could not ask him to do. One had to wait for the right opportunity and this occurred at the moment when he entered the medicine story behind the counter, when you could easily discern a scar shaped like a cross on the nape of his neck. Yu could now give a reliable report to the Heder, swearing be'einai ra'iti (I have seen it with my own eyes) and should your friends remain unconvinced, you could swear by the shirt-fringe (tzitzit).
Opposite Marin's shop was the Gemine, the Municipality, with the emblem of the town on its building: the head of its Patron Saint floating over a tree, under which were emblazoned three words: Love, Tolerance and Humanity – three virtues of which the Jews of the shtetl had such need during the days of their tribulation yet it was doubtful if the town fathers and its citizens displayed even a moiety of them at the time…
I have no idea of the services given by the Municipality to the inhabitants. If it was a social welfare – the poverty-stricken Jews did not enjoy it, but were assisted by the meager resources of the Jewish congregation and the voluntary institutions of traditional self-help. On the other hand, the Jews were the only ones to enjoy the Municipal Health Services, manifested by an inspection, from time to time, of the sanitation conditions in the Jews' habitation by a committee of some members of the Municipality. The alarm would at once be raised: A commissieh geit! and all the members of the family would begin a frantic sweeping around the houses and the shops, clearing away the garbage and the junk. One mustn't belittle the need of such a service under the miserable conditions in which the Jews lived then. Were it not for the Fear of the government (mora d'malchut) who knows how things would have been…
At this opportunity the Commisieh determined which wooden houses were boyfelik, i.e., in danger of collapse but had not yet been vacated. Shopkeepers were found whose weights and measuring vessels had not been marked or inspected for a long time, peddlers whose licenses had long expired, shops failing to put up a price list in a prominent place etc. Heavy fines were imposed – more than the victims could bear, and the lobbyists of the congregation, members of the local council or simply Jews with some influence, did their best to alleviate the edicts.
The Heder children apprehended the Municipality in the form of its inspectors in blue uniforms with red and white piping: the politsei (policemen were called gendarmes). One of these was Shuba, a short, plump Goy with an enormous white mustache dignifying his appearance, much as a long beard dignifies that of a Jew. He had served for many years at the Municipality, from the days of Franz Joseph, and behaved as if he owned it. He would strut around in its lanes like a landowner on his property, peering at everything that went on – the embodiment of authority and power. Full of his own self-importance and the need to keep a distance from his inferiors he would barely reply to their greetings.
From time to time the politzei would appear holding a large trumpet and a drum slung over his shoulder. He would beat the drum a number of times until all the Heder children, the curious and the unemployed layabouts had gathered around him and would then shout, using the trumpet as a loud-speaker
YOU ARE HEREBY INFORMED!… In this way all the resolutions, orders and important Municipal announcements were passed down to the public, enhanced by his authority. He read them out in a serious, ceremonious intonation as if it were he who had resolved, ordered and prohibited. His announcements always ended with the words: Anyone who disobeys will be heavily punished! i.e., will be dealt with by me! There were very few printed announcements as only a minority could read and write.
Having finished his announcements in one place, the politzei would move on to another, surrounded by his faithful followers, the Heder children who would listen to him anew every time, even though they had no idea what he meant. What attracted them was the drum and the trumpet. The Shammes at the Clois did not have such impressive tools. After banging a number of times on the table from which the Torah is read he would deliver his message: Me'iz machriz umodia… followed by an important announcement on behalf of the Gabbai or the Rabbi. That was it! The children accompanied the politzei from one narrow street to another till the Oliyarnia is reached, home of the scoundrels who had better be avoided. Here there was a changing of the guard and the Heder children ceded their place to the barefoot rascals who now joined and followed him in all the streets of the Goyim.
Their task ended, the children rushed home with the exciting news: me'hot gepoikt! The drum was beaten, it was announced! – What was announced? To this there was no reply, they did not know.
Yet the event left a deep impression which lasted for a long time and found expression in the games played at home and in the Heder. Who can number the tin pots, commandeered to act as the politzei's drum, a task for which they were totally unfit, making them end up at the tinsmith's to have all the holes soldered.
Between the Gemine and Dr. Litz's small house with its surrounding garden, there was a street with a few wooden houses, one of which had been the Peretz Farein before it had been moved to the Rink. Next to it was the house of Machniovsky, the widow of a government or a municipal official who managed a restaurant in her apartment for a fixed clientele, all members of the intelligentsia, some of them Jews. Her guests boasted bachelor doctors and lawyers, widowers or divorced men who did not conduct a proper household and came at a fixed hour for their meal. This was served in the elegant manner worthy of such high-class people. The poultry was supplied to Machniosky by her Jewish neighbours. All the fowl that had been judged treif by the Rabbi, the hens in whose stomach a rusted nail had been discovered or had internal ulcers, the pox and all kinds of diseases, God preserve us! – all these were brought to her.
When the meat was kashered at home and a question arose as to the kashrut of a fowl, the tainted part, hip-bone or wing, suppurating stomach or poxy liver and such, were wrapped in paper and sent to the Rabbi with the question. He would cast one glance at the question lying before him and in a clear-cut case would condemn it or not, as the case may be. When there was room for doubt he would finger the question, seeking a way to justify its use. Finally he would push it away in disgust and pronounce: Tell your mother to sell it to a Goy! He never called it treifa.
The Goy suggested by the Rabbi as the potential buyer of the treifa was the Machniovskin who bought the meat for pennies and turned it into delicacies fit for the palates of her important clients. No wonder, then, that the shtetl's Jews were scornful of these members of the intelligentsia and felt themselves superior to these eaters of waste and abomination which, were it not for the Machniovskin, would be thrown into the rubbish bin or given to cats. At one time the following Halachic question was raised: Seeing that among the clients eating at the Machniovskina's there were also Jews, it followed that by offering her tainted meat these Jews were trapped into sinning by eating treifa, thus causing the sellers to transgress against the tenet You shall put no hindrance before a blind man. This problem was much discussed by the scholars but I don't know how it was solved. The fact is that trade continued with the Machniovskin.
Follow the above ritually pure restaurant and near Eli-Hersch Weiss' bakery come the steps that lead down to the Oliyarnia. No self-respecting boy ever used the steps, of course, if he could swing smoothly down on the iron banister and, having saved much time, repeat the process again and again! But while gliding down, one must take care not to slip off the banister down into the adjacent gutter. Therefore, a few meters before you reached your destination, you had to slow down and break by grasping the pipe as hard as you could and then,
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reaching the end, jump off at one go. In these trips one could not avoid the protruding joints of the iron banister and was pinched accordingly. These joints were the major enemies of your pants, and torn pants usually resulted in a confrontation with Mother. To be exact, it was not the original pants which were torn by this downward slide but the patches on them, patches which went back for three or four generations… Still Mother would insist: You've torn your pants again!
And, indeed, not only did the children grow as if on yeast, but their clothes, despite the fact that they had been originally sewn with ample spare of length and breath, Zum oisvacksen (to keep up with the growth) were always getting smaller and narrower; they burst at the seams till there was nothing left to let out. Night after night Mother spent sitting and sewing on patches which lasted a shorter time than it took to stitch them on and more work was all she needed… What I should do is order a pair of tin pants for him at Ha'im the tinsmith's – perhaps they will last, cried Mother, clasping her hands in despair.
The Municipality and the Apteik closed the circle of the Heder children's world. Beyond them lay the non-Jewish part of the shtetl with the threatened danger of confrontation with its hooligans on the pavement. Here the Jewish child would find himself alone and unprotected, with no hope of help from the shops or the crowded Jewish quarters.
In crossing the border which, though unmarked, was yet no less palpably felt, the child was apprehensive. His plans of defense depended on a small number of Jewish homes scattered in the area for shelter in case of danger, and he crossed the dangerous area between them as quickly as possible.
Here were to be found all the government institutions to which the Jews, like other citizens had recourse. The Regional Offices – the Starosta, the Court, the Police station, the State Bank where the Jews redeemed their promissory notes, and the Sokol Theatre.
The Sokol boasted of electricity before the shtetl whose homes were lit by oil lamps. If you had the courage to venture there at night you could see outside it, shining over the entrance gate, a burning electric bulb!
Several times a week there were films shows at the Sokol, a great attraction in the shtetl which only the modern youngsters could enjoy. For the youths of the Beis Medresh and even more so for the Heder children,
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the cinema was considered treif – an abomination – an attitude which did not make the temptation any easier to bear for the curious ones among them. One of the Beis Medresh youths could not resist it and decided to risk seeing this miracle of people walking on the wall. One evening he took a ladder down from the entresol and when he had brought it to the Sokol, put it up against the back wall near a window so that he could peep inside. He returned deeply frustrated – the windows of the hall were covered with heavy drapes.
In this neighbourhood, just before the turning in the direction of the Sokol, there was a square, a kind of medium-sized yard planted with shady trees under which stood some benches – the Small Park. Prominent to the east of this park is the large building of the Regional Offices – the Starosta. To the south was a wide shaded pavement for strolling between two roads, an inner one surrounding the park and another, the main road, which cut across the shtetl and, upon reaching the park, went down the steep descent near the Starosta through the Horbick quarter. This was a highway which connected the shtetl with the wide world and it branched off towards Sanock and Rimanov, towns which were reached by train.
Across from the Promenade beside the Girls' School stood the Memorial of Princess Yadwiga, the heroine of Grunewald, with fenced-in flower beds around it.
In the summer on Saturday afternoons the Jews came to the park for some fresh air. The young people did not go there, preferring the new park which was bigger and farther away. They went to the Pansky Kshakis, the Bialeh Fields or to the forest which was a two hours' walk away.
The small park was too distant for old women and too modern for them to enjoy. They would rather sit near their home, in small neighbourly groups, telling each other of their troubles which were sometimes so similar that they found it difficult to distinguish between what they told and what they heard. The park was certainly not a comfortable place for those wearing traditional garb, for the shtreimel and the park were inimical to each other. For the learners the Sabbath was altogether too short so that they didn't manage to get through their learning programme, let alone having time for useless activities such as going for walks.
The only ones who spent their time there were young couples with their children and the middle-aged, amcha, artisans and common people who still had time to spare, after they had finished saying the Pirkei Avot at the synagogue, for a Sabbath stroll before the evening prayers.
The only Jewish shop here was Mendzi Trentsher's Drugstore, a combination of a pharmacy and a cosmetics' shop. Here were sold all kinds of patent medicines and ointments which may be purchased without a prescription, as well as orthopedic instruments, which were bought mainly by Jews. The cosmetics were bought by the government officials living in the vicinity. In the shop window, peeping out from between jars of leeches, enemas and rupture supports, you might discern some bottles of fine wine, Today and Malaga. These were not there to be bought for enjoyment. They were called medicinal and were bought for those who were seriously ill, to be taken in teaspoons so many times a day by people who could no longer enjoy the delicacy which for them had the taste of bitter medicine.
There were two public schools in the vicinity, built of red bricks and with a sloping tiled roof, one for boys and one for girls. Here, for the first time, Jewish children met their non-Jewish peers and this meeting, except for the rare attempts at making a contact based on many reservations, was usually fraught with harsh conflicts during the break, condemned by the cruel indifference of the men and women teachers who hated the Jews.
Beyond the Sokol stood the new high school – the Gymnasium. At first there were a few Jewish students there but their numbers grew in time.
Near the Regional Offices, inside the Small Park, there was a small wooden hut which housed the local Post Office. This was a service much used by the Jews who would come frequently to buy postcards and postage stamps; to send a telegram, take out a parcel of goods which had been urgently ordered, or a package of used clothing send by relatives in America.
Sometimes, on rare occasions, they would go there for a telephone conversation ordered beforehand. As both sides did not have a telephone at home, the connection was made by means of Aviso, the desired party being called by the Post Office. The meeting took place at a fixed hour. The communicants at both ends of the line would arrive, tense and excited, to enter the padded isolated booths of their local
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post office, where the operator would connect them. One was easily confused when the instrument rang in the closed, dank booths, and the conversation usually turned into some cries of Hello, hello! and some opening remarks, very loudly repeated. Finally one emerged, hoarse and with ringing ears, despairing of this doubtful development of technology.
During the evening, when the government offices and institutions were closed, no Jew was to be seen here – for them the place was out of bounds.
Beyond the Apteik, on the borderline dividing the Jewish from the non-Jewish sector stood the Catholic Church, towering over both sides.
The Church and all it symbolized cast its gloomy shadow over the Jewish shtetl, its direct antithesis. The open hostility of the church had an adverse influence on the status of the Jews, an influence that was felt in their everyday life.
With the ringing of the bells on Sundays and Holy Days the Jews seemed to detect a threatening note in the chimes; they would try to diminish their stature and make their presence less obvious.
The Church stood in large grounds covered with a well-tended lawn. The building itself, with its enormous dimensions, its towers and bells, seemed to overpower all the large and impressing buildings of the village. The Church grounds were on a slight elevation, surrounded by a low concrete wall topped by a tall iron fence which was painted black, with sharp-pointed spikes projecting upwards. This long fence was, for the ordinary Jewish child, a wall of strangeness and fear, separating him from the Church and anything connected with it. The children could point out a bent iron bar in the fence, saying with pride and satisfaction that it was the work of Potalli.
It was a well known fact that every day the Church sank into the ground to the depth of a pin's head, but how could this be verified? I used to stand staring at the distant wall through the iron fence, seeking for some indication of the truth of this theory. But nothing could be discerned at such a distance. We were well aware that such a slow process of sinking, even if it actually took place, was most insignificant. Even if one grew to a fabulous old age, like that of der alter Hersh Meilich, it was doubtful if one could live to see the Church actually buried in the ground. At the very most it might become difficult to force its iron portals open for those wishing to enter.
Hersh Meilich was a symbol to all of unusual longevity. To demonstrate his awesome old age it was said that worem-mell (worm powder, a yellowish powdered wood that came out of ancient, worm-eaten trees) flowed out of him.
The oldsters of the former generation had a long account with the Church and always tried to bypass it when in the neighbourhood, turning their heads away so as not to see it.
As we grew older and our horizons, as we then considered it, became wider, we were repelled by their attitude to a House of Prayer venerated by the people. But, as in many cases where the young tend to deride the old-fashioned ideas of their elders and on achieving maturity they realized that these ideas had been the fruit of wisdom based on experience – so, too, in the matter of the Church, we saw just how right they had been.
The very name of the Church aroused not only the fears buried in the sub-conscious and associations with all the terrors of the Crusades, the pogroms, the inquisitions, the blood-libels and other traumas of the past – it also stood for all the evils of the present: the brutality and alienation, the boycott of Jewish shops, the waves of looting engendered by every change of government – all came from the Church. It was not love of man that emanated from it but hatred. Ignorant priests, hoodlums investments, used its sacred pulpit to preach sermons that incited the brutish masses. Possessed by a fathomless hatred of the Jews they could not rest until their dream of a Juden-rein Poland was so monstrously realized before their eyes.
As for the Jews themselves, their senses, sharpened by generations of persecution, predicted that their sufferings at the hands of the Church were not yet over, that it would never rest until they had all been annihilated.
It was because of the Church that so many Poles betrayed their Jewish neighbours to the hangman – next door neighbours with whom they had lived in close proximity for generations. There were some who voluntarily turned themselves into executioners, deriving a sadistic satisfaction in the process.
The solitary few among these gentiles who still preserved some vestiges of humanity and tried to help the wretched victims, had to be particularly careful of their co-religionists if they wished to avoid sharing a fate similar to that of the Jews.
The Church – that was the source of this evil, the fountain-head that nourished it all.
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